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ACLU Reaches Accord With Hawaii in Prison Case
Aconsent agreement was reached in July in a nine-year old Hawaii prison law suit, it was announced by Alvin J. Bronstein, executive director of the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, D.C., Governor John Waihee, and state public safety director George Sumner. The accord establishes a timetable for the dismissal of a 1984 lawsuit brought on behalf of prisoners by the National Prison Project and the local ACLU over unconstitutional conditions at two Hawaii prisons.
The new agreement will continue the process of improving conditions at the Oahu Community Correctional Center (OCCC) and the Women's Community Correctional Center (WCCC).
At a mid-July press conference in Honolulu, Bronstein said, "There is a delicious irony in announcing the agreement on this particular date. Nine years ago this week I first toured the WCCC and OCCC. I have never seen conditions as bad as I did that day. There were people sleeping on the floor, in corridors, in classrooms. It was so crowded there was no way to keep it clean."
At that time, the population at the women's prison was 300% of capacity, meaning there were three inmates for every one prison bed. "WCCC was the most crowded prison in the country," said Bronstein.
Both parties agree that conditions have improved since the lawsuit was filed in 1984. The ACLU had asserted that conditions at both facilities were inhumane and violated minimal constitutional standards. An innovative consent decree resulted, which established three panels of experts to develop plans for improvement and to monitor the state's progress.
The lawsuit spurred the legislature to appropriate funds for a new women's facility, to implement alternatives to prison time, and to pass legislation for the release of nonviolent offenders in times of severe overcrowding.
The new agreement: (1) Limits the number of prisoners housed in particular areas and in any one cell. (2) Provides for permanent population caps at both WCCC and OCCC which will be enforced by Hawaii state courts rather than the federal court. (3) Dissolves the three expert panels in favor of two monitors who will determine whether the state is in compliance. At the end of 10 months time, if the monitors agree that the state is in compliance, officials may petition the court for dismissal of the lawsuit.
Carl Varady, legal director for the Hawaii ACLU, said of the agreement, "Once the state is in compliance, we hope the permanent population controls in the new agreement will assure that the state will not slip backward toward the serious and sometimes life-threatening conditions that once existed in its prisons."
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